Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Let’s get this straight once and for all: They’re not monkeys, they’re apes.

I’m going to try to help you understand why that jackhole at the zoo corrected you about a silly word in front of your kids last Tuesday.

Here goes.

I’ve seen it happen many times: A mother and her kids are standing at the glass pointing at the gorillas inside the exhibit (in the "ape house" with labels everywhere) and the mother says, “Look at the silly monkeys!”

On cue, a bystander interjects, “They’re not monkeys, they’re apes,” which irks the mother and she walks away.

In my brief stint so far doing observations at the Lincoln Park Zoo, I have met a ton of people as they file past Jojo's group of gorillas. Most of the interactions are positive, make what I'm doing feel even cooler than it already is, and validate the importance of the research. And I have never once corrected anyone who I (very often) overhear calling the gorillas “monkeys.”

If asked, or if I’m approached and a conversation ensues, then I do correct any number of misconceptions people may have about the gorillas (e.g. that they're monkeys or that the females are ashamed after they have sex... jeepers!), but I never impose myself on anyone visiting the apes, without their permission. This is hard to do for a professional educator, but it’s my M.O. because I think it's polite and it's not my primary concern or role there... collecting behavioral data is.

But you know what? It’s getting harder and harder to stay silent. The insanity of the whole situation is building to a nearly unbearable level. It’s beginning to blow my mind, the incredible number of people who call apes monkeys.

Mind you most of my friends know monkeys from apes, but here’s why it’s so staggering…

What if you were at the park and met a nice lady and her toddler who wanted to pet your dog and the lady told her kid that your dog was a cat?

You might think, at first, that she's not a native English speaker, but she has an American accent. Okay, then you might think that maybe she's hard of seeing, but for this example, she’s got 20/20 vision and even blind people would assume a pet on a leash was first a dog and only rarely a cat. What if you corrected her and instead of blaming it on a "senior moment," she furrowed her brow and found a way to end the interaction? What else could you possibly think about this mistaken woman except that she must be INSANE? No sane person would teach their child that a dog is a cat, would think a dog is a cat, or would never have learned during their whole life that a dog wasn't a cat.

Dogs and cats are distinct. Easy.

So are monkeys and apes. Just as easy. Confusing them, like confusing cats and dogs, is either embarrassingly lazy or is downright flirting with insanity.

Apes are gibbons, siamangs, orangutans, gorillas, chimps, and people. We apes don’t have tails and we have big brains and advanced cognitive skills among other traits. Monkeys have tails (even ones that look tailless have little stubs) and most have much smaller brains (an exception being the capuchin).

Apes and monkeys are separate categories of animals. This is why calling an ape a monkey sounds absolutely crazy and that is why some people just can’t help themselves and morph into prickish pedants around ignorant zoo visitors.

Would you call a horse a zebra? No.

Would you call a goat a sheep? No. Or if you did, the farmer would correct you.

Would you call a frog a toad? No. Well, maybe you’d do that because it's so common, but frog- and toad-ologists hate that.

And, apologies to the frog- and toad-ologists out there, but since monkeys and apes are our closest relatives, there is much more at stake when we mislabel them.
We sound so stupid* when we don't know the names of our own relatives. And these aren't even species level names... they're big broad categories of animals that small children are capable of learning.

And no! Knowledge of the animal kingdom is not child's play. It's everyone's Earth. Look around.

Granted, "monkey" is a lot more fun to say than "ape." You don't hear people going gaga over their kittens with, "You look like a little ape!"** So being so much more ubiquitous in our daily vernacular, I do understand how the word "monkey" may be more prominently tattooed on our neurons and might rest further down the tongue than the word "ape."

It's also clear that many zoo visitors are new parents who haven't yet relearned all the things they learned long ago but have since forgotten. They just need a little more time. (This is some of the joy of parenting that I look forward to one day. Differential calculus here I come, again! I've missed you.)

But, it really doesn't matter why so many humans can't bother to distinguish monkeys from apes. What matters is that for your own reputation, for your own dignity, you call apes apes and monkeys monkeys.

The gorillas don't care what you call them from behind the glass, but many of your fellow humans do, and you probably care what your fellow humans think because that's prosocial behavior.

So here's a big sorry on behalf of jerks everywhere who can't help themselves but tell you, "they're not monkeys, they're apes."

And also, on behalf of people everywhere who know that apes aren't monkeys, thank you so much for getting it straight!

*Jeepers. For me to write a word that I abhor, must mean that I mean business.
** Check out my favorite response video ever.

Images modified from: and


Ken Weiss said...

Hey, I think there's a deep mistake here--at least if humans are purportedly 'apes'!

After all, adults in many behaviors (licit and otherwise) are routinely said to be 'monkeying around'. I don't know, Holly, if that gets under your skin or not.

But you need to be consistent, or else you're just wasting all our time with all your 'monkey business'!

Holly Dunsworth said...

stop horsing around, Ken.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Whatever answer I give will be catty.

Ken Weiss said...

These animal images are SO demeaning! As Huxley put it in the famous Oxford debate with Bishop Wilberforce, he'd rather be a miserable ape than related to an ignorant person....who couldn't tell an ape from a monkey. (Well, it went something like that!)

Ken Weiss said...

That's getting kinda personal! At least, Wilberforce is usually thought of as the one with the long ears.

Anyway, we need to get to work....and stop going ape over this subject.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Yes, we're very busy bees.

Bethany Usher said...

My daughters have been known to correct people at the zoo. As they have gotten older and slightly more polite, they just listen and then vent later. "Why do they call them monkeys?" "Why do they say they've never seen one before when they ARE one?"

Maybe they're just aping me.

Holly Dunsworth said...

apes are haplorhines, anthropoids, and catarrhines, not monkeys :)

occamseraser said...

I'd rather be a monkey than a *gasp* cladist!

James Goetz said...

However, something that should cause an outrage is science literature referring to Xenopus as a toad genus.

Ken Weiss said...

If I understand the questions, I think the point of cladistics (in this context) would be to name the 'lowest' clade or group of species with a common ancestor. Yes, we're primates, but monkeys are on a separate (if major) branch of cercopithecoids, etc. Yes all of us are in that major group, but we're not in its monkey clade

Anne Buchanan said...

Indeed, Darwin pointed out that all of life, in effect, belongs to the same clade. This was a great insight -- but not very helpful when it comes to trying to figure out where the diversity of life came from. For that we need to classify.

James Goetz said...

Ken there is no such thing as a "monkey clade" that excludes apes. We can refer to an extant new world monkey clade and an extant old world monkey clade, but any clade that includes new world monkeys and old world monkeys by definition includes apes, clothed and naked.:) Of course, we have the option of rejecting cladistics all together or sometimes rejecting cladistics while referring to paraphyletic groups such as monkeys and fish.

James Goetz said...

Anne, do we classify according to evolutionary relationship or morphological similarities? For example, old word monkeys have a closer evolutionary relationship to apes compared to their relationship to new world monkeys.

Holly Dunsworth said...

that "monkeys" is applied to two separate groups of related animals should make it easier for people to keep all those monkeys separate from the relatively few species of apes.

Anne Buchanan said...

I'm completely out of my area now, Jim, and shouldn't have waded in here at all, but you know, classification is a social construct! Whatever meets your needs.

Anne Buchanan said...

In fact, in Chapter 2 of Origin, Variation Under Nature, discussing what to make of all that blasted variability within species, Darwin said this:

"Hence, in determining whether a form should be ranked as a species or a variety, the opinion of naturalists having sound judgement and wide experience seems the only guide to follow. We must, however, in many cases, decide by a majority of naturalists, for few well-marked and well-known varieties can be named which have not been ranked as species by at least some competent judges."

There you have it: take a vote.

Duncan Ingram said...

That's nothing. When I worked at a zoo, you wouldn't believe the number of (adult) people who genuinely thought chimps were called cheetahs, because of the ape in Tarzan. Not to mention confusing sealions with dolphins, penguins with ducks and (I kid you not) crocodiles with dinosaurs.

Ken Weiss said...

Someone, ANYONE, want to pitch in and teach science at K-12? Or encourage their students to do it? If nobody wants to do that, then how can we complain about the results?

Holly Dunsworth said...

A friend sent this (may be Dr. Seuss?)

Holly Dunsworth said...

And Ken, if someone makes it so K-12 teachers can count on ample time and ample opportunity ($) to perform scientific research, then maybe we'll see more of that.

Jason Hodgson said...

It seems that many languages don't differentiate between monkeys and apes in colloquial usage. For example spanish does not. They are all monkeys. I think this an elegant solution considering the paraphyly of "monkeys".

Ken Weiss said...

I don't know if this is really true, as Spanish does have 'simio' as well as 'mono', but let's ignore my ignorance of the language.

Defining a problem away is not a 'solution' if one thinks that the group of 'apes' should be recognized as distinctly related in important ways. How important that is (to others than systematists) is a judgment call and I wouldn't or shouldn't be given a vote!

But if there is a general solution as accepted by science, we might expect an educated public to recognize it. Of course, 'educated' often means 'acculturated' to our cultural ways, whether or not those correspond closely to the objective world (if the latter even exists).

Holly Dunsworth said...

Check it out! Dogs are actually foxes. What were we thinking?

Jason Hodgson said...


I don't speak a word of Spanish, so I don't really know. However, I was told by a native Spanish speaking primatologist that they don't differentiate with a single term. Apparently this is true of Spanish and French as well. Again, I don't really know, except that we've several times had this argument in my lab and my lab is totally overrun with foreigners.

Also, I don't think it is really defining the problem away to sink Apes into monkeys. There is a real problem with the group "monkeys" if you want your groups to reflect evolutionary history. For example if we included both dolphins and cichlids in the group "fish" you might come to the conclusion that this is a problematic grouping. "Monkeys" are the same.

By making all anthropoids "monkeys" and then "apes" a subset of "monkeys" we are just making colloquial usage fit the taxonomy that scientists recognize.

I actually think non-specialists would be better served to understand primate diversity in this way than in the way we currently use "monkeys" and "apes". Our current usage reasonably implies a close relationship amongst the "monkeys" and there is not. If we are unhappy with people calling dolphins "fish" as Holly suggests we should be, then I think we ought to be equally unhappy with the term "monkey" as it is currently understood.

Ken Weiss said...

These are all valid points and far enough beyond my detailed knowledge that I daren't opine about them.

Even from the beginning, in his barnacle work and clearly stated in the first part of the Origin, Darwin knew the problems of defining species, varieties, and so on. He know things graded one into the other. He knew that even species were somewhat arbitrary boundaries.

This is a similar kind of issue in some ways, as it is a judgment call whether some grouping is useful or not (or, as you discuss, whether a term makes a useful distinction or not)

A deeper point is the degree to which 'education' is educating anybody, and how or to what extent. And could it be done better?

Holly Dunsworth said...

Clearly people aren't out there calling apes monkeys because they're all huffled puffled about "monkeys" being paraphyletic.

And anyhow, we DO colloquially separate the two lineages. There's "New world Monkeys" and "Old World monkeys."

And just to pile it on, we use "dog" and "bear" for non-sister taxa.

Folk biology or whatever you want to call it and modern systematics don't always match. (Neato.)

At the very least, in the midst of this atrocious intellectual chaos, we can ask that people get the folk biology right. Right?

Anonymous said...

Just to add a not-sure-how-relevant point to this topic: as far as I know, there aren't many other languages other than English that have a term for a group that is defined as including just Platyrrhini and Cercopithecoidea (=polyphyletic*), or "Anthropoidea except Hominoidea" (=paraphyletic).
*A polyphyletic definition of "monkeys" is repeatedly used in media ("We don't descend from monkeys, but share a common ancestor with them"), even by scientists who should know that they ought to explain in more detail.

In most languages I've come across (so far), there only are synonymes of the monophyletic groups Anthropoidea and Hominoidea, usually even with an emphasis of apes being the specifically "human" subset of Anthropoidea. My mother tongue, Finnish, for instance, has the group term "apinat" for Anthropoidea and "ihmisapinat" ("human-anthropoids") for apes. This is quite a common type of terminology, and, unlike the current English one, consistent with cladistics (not counting the fact that many laypeople speaking such languages commonly - and incorrectly - associate the terms like "apinat" and "ihmisapinat" as something essentially non-human, but that is the layperson's mindset - we all know that the term "animal" and its equivalents in all languages is also typivally associated thus).

That given, people like me, who don't speak English as their mother tongue are basically free from the waste of time (that's what I consider it) that the monkey-ape -thing causes. However, as the term "monkey" often appears in English-language media that end up being translated to other languages, wherein those languages' synonymes of "anthropoid" usually takes the place as the translation of "monkey," since there is no term with the same meaning it has.
The most alarming case I can think of (or at least the most recent one I've come across) is Richard Dawkins' latest book The Greatest Show on Earth, wherein the author many times over makes the point that humans are not descended from monkeys, but that we only share a common ancestor with them (= the above mentioned polyphyletic definition) and in many interviews he emphasizes the fact that humans are not just like apes, don't just share a common ancestor with them and aren't just descended from them, but that humans actually ARE apes. Now, the Finnish translator of TGSoE (named Kimmo Pietiläinen) used the word "apina" ("an anthropoid") as the translation of "monkey." I'm positively afraid, that someone Finnish-speaking person happens to BOTH read the Finnish translation of TGSoE AND see some of those interviews of Prof.Dawkins affirming that humans are apes. That'd sound exactly like "Humans are not descended from anthropoids, but only share a common ancestor with them. Also, humans don't just descend from human-anthropoids, but actually ARE human-anthropoids." As everyone can clearly see, that might accidentally make it seem as though Richard is performing double-talk.

But that's all I have to say about this not-so-fortunate topic. Just to give you gentlemen something additional to think and talk about.

Lone Primate said...

Sorry, Holly, but you're wrong. Apes are a subset of monkeys, and it's easy to demonstrate that.

In English we typically use "monkey" in a generic sense to mean any tailed primate. People typically call lemurs monkeys, even though they aren't. But what, then, is a "monkey"? Essentially, any dry-nosed primate (suborder Haplorrhini), except for tarsiers, is some variety of monkey.

In a misapplication of the term, in English we class two quite distinct sets of primates as "monkeys". A baboon, for instance, is an "Old World monkey", while a spider monkey is a "New World monkey". This is largely because of the superficial resemblance in form and size rather than actual genetic relatedness. But the fact of the matter is, a spider monkey belongs to the parvorder Platyrrhinia, while the baboon belongs to the parvorder Catarrhini (and so do we). Despite the mutual "monkey" label, a baboon is more closely related to gorillas, chimps, and humans, than it is to any spider monkey. For example, only New World monkeys have prehensile tails; Old World monkeys don't. In general, Old World monkeys have opposable thumbs; in general, New World monkeys don't. All Old World monkeys have full trichromatic (full colour) vision; most New World monkeys don't. New World monkeys all have 12 premolars; Old World monkeys all have 8. Classing baboons and spider monkeys together instead of baboons and, say, orangutans, is like classing two cousins together while denying the much closer relationship of their respective siblings. While it may be satisfying to one's reputation and dignity (but why should it be?), it's not good science, and it's not a courageous acknowledgement of a biological fact.

So how can a baboon be "monkey" like a spider monkey when it genetically belongs to the same class of animals as apes?

Easy. Because if the word "monkey" means anything useful at all, then apes are just another sort of monkey. And, as apes ourselves, so are we. All the things I said above that are false for New World monkeys but true for Old World monkeys, are also true for humans.

Used artificially, "monkey" groups together a lot of animals that aren't actually so closely related, while excluding others that are. Used correctly, it includes essentially any primate that isn't a wet-nosed primate (such as a lemur) or a tarsier. In other words, the infraorder Simiiforms. And that includes us. Not only are the apes being asked about monkeys, so are the humans doing the asking.

Unknown said...

THANK YOU! I completely agree! Your post inspired me to write one of my own:

Holly Dunsworth said...

That's awesome Dan.

Anonymous said...

We are APES! Some us don't want admit that it's the truth.

Holly Dunsworth said...

I knew of some but not these--thanks! Some of the tone here is for dramatic effect, while some of it was sincerely dramatic but of a mind that was five years younger. I wouldn't write this exactly the same way today.

Today I'm wondering if calling apes monkeys would help with their conservation since "monkey" is a beloved word in kids' books and, I'm guessing, between parents and kids, but the less diminutive, more harsh "ape" is harder to find.